Reacting to the Critics

By Susan J. Ellis

During the past month, e-mails have been colliding all over cyberspace discussing a recent editorial published by Nick Cater of the Guardian newspaper in the UK titled, "Hidden costs of free time and talent: If a job's worth doing, it's worth doing without volunteers" Cater perpetuates every obnoxious stereotype about volunteering as more of a hindrance than a help, done by unskilled do-gooders to let government off the hook.

Many people posted reactions in various forums (see the archives of ARNOVA-L and CyberVPM for some of the better comments), ranging from "this author should be drawn and quartered" to "this author doesn't deserve our time and attention." A few people were able to distinguish the bad statements from a few insightful ones, but disdain was the rule. Without rehashing what is no longer news, this incident makes me ruminate on how we in the volunteer field react to criticism in general.

Reactions to criticism - and to any forthright opinion expressed publicly in our field - seem to fall into four categories of response:

  • "Why Don't They Like Us?"
  • "I Can't Be Bothered to Respond" (closely connected to "I'm Too Busy to Respond")
  • "I Resent that Opinion So I'll Blame the Speaker"
  • "Let's Fight Back"

It's common for us to take criticism personally and try to answer specific issues with anecdotes about the incredibly wonderful volunteers we know (so how can your experience be any different?). As advocates of what we wish the public would think about us, we defensively counter all arguments without distinguishing valid concerns from myths and prejudice. We're often accused of "whining" because we focus on "you're wrong" without necessarily offering a thoughtful alternative opinion - except for those glorious anecdotes.

The two most frustrating aspects of how our field reacts to criticism are playing ostrich and generating backroom chatter. The ostriches simply don't pay attention. They are rarely aware of anything outside their own agencies or, if they read negative commentary, they never reply. More often, there is a good bit of discussion, but it's done as complaining to each other (on practitioner listservs, in the halls of conferences) rather than expressing opinions in forums where they might educate others. In general, volunteerism practitioners don't like to make waves. Isn't this ironic for a field that owes its history to pioneers and activists? A profession must stand for something and its members must stand for the profession.

We are a field that is uncomfortable with confrontation. We sometimes forget that there is such a thing as the "loyal opposition." And that our work is complex enough to have many gray areas about which good people can disagree. If you want to see some of the more common challenges to our field, click on Jayne Craven's "anti" message list in the Trends and Issues category of the Library.

So what can we do?

Recognize the Real Problems
Let's be honest. There is still a lot of lousy volunteering out there! There are indeed organizations that exploit volunteers, treat them badly, and don't value the work of the volunteer program manager. There are politicians and governments looking to volunteers to substitute for adequate funding of services. We have colleagues who were hired for the wrong reasons and who are retained because of low standards.

We ought to be able to agree with critics who point out these issues. In fact, we shouldn't wait for others to see the need for change. Being proactive in bringing bad volunteer practices to light would serve everyone. I once suggested that AVA announce an insult-to-injury "award" whenever someone in the public arena said or did something outrageous in terms of volunteer involvement. This may not be what AVA feels appropriate for itself, but the concept has been applied by other fields to some effect.

Educate Up
Individually, all we can do is excel in our work. Actually, that's quite an accomplishment. But we can become smarter about educating "up" within our own organizations, so that executives, board members, and funders become advocates themselves for the value of volunteers. We need to be consistent spokespeople for the impact of volunteering - when effectively facilitated. This means reporting on the achievements of volunteers, not just the data about them. It means transforming recognition events into opportunities to celebrate impact. It means assuring that we recruit the best volunteers and keep them visible to everyone.

Educate Out
In addition, we need to send press releases to the media that focus on hard news, not on soft news: it may be lovely that you gave an award to your 95-year-old volunteer, but you'll deserve more press coverage for the five teenagers who, despite almost dropping out of school last year, won college scholarships thanks to the tutoring of their volunteers. When we begin to share "hard news" messages, it will have a ripple effect on what others think of our work. Right now, remember, most of the public -and reporters - only hear about us when we are trying to recruit new volunteers or when we throw a party (i.e., the recognition event with the usual photo of smiling certificate holders).

Act Under the Umbrella of Our Professional Networks
One of the most important things about professional networks, especially at the local and state/provincial level is that they offer protection! Rather than acting individually, perhaps risking the reputation of your employer, you can use your professional network to share the blame of public action! To the press, formal responses from professional organizations carry more clout than one person's opinion. Having a public issues committee empowered to send letters to officials or the media also allows for consensus building. But the response mechanism has to work fast! Deliberations of even several weeks about how to respond usually means missing the boat in responding effectively at all. It ought to be possible to develop a consistent set of beliefs which, if challenged publicly, provide the basis for a prompt reply.

What suggestion can you add?
How do you respond to criticism of volunteering?
What can one person do?

Receive an update when the next "News and Tips" is posted!


Permission to Reprint